It's hard to believe that we are just a week away from an important election in Latvia. In stark contrast to previous ballots, there are virtually no posters of grinning politicians on the streets, while beer and chocolate advertising continue to dominate television screens (bar the agonizingly amateur Conser-vative Party adverts - more on them later).
Compare this with the ridiculously expensive parliamentary elections in 2002 that saw an unbearably intrusive election campaign with competing parties spending a conservatively estimated total of 5.3 million lats (7.9 million euros).
There are two main reasons for this contrast. First, political parties have traditionally been the happy beneficiaries of generous corporate sponsorship from businessmen and "oligarchs" (such as they are in Latvia). In return, these sponsors have benefited from favorable privatization regulations and legal tinkering, and the forces of law enforcement have been kept at bay. Although there have recently been changes in the Latvian party financing law, this is not the reason for this change in campaigning intensity; rather, Latvian political parties have no comparable influence at the European Parliament. Thus very little money has been made available by sponsors, who are nervously checking their bank accounts and considering the upcoming 2005 local and 2006 national elections.
Let us look at the facts. New party financing regulations demand that parties declare how much money they expect to spend in upcoming elections. The sums are a fraction of those spent in 2002: the People's Party has allocated 75,000 lats (as compared with an estimated 1 million plus in 2002), Latvia's First Party will be spending just 30,000 lats (over half a million in 2002), and so on. Only the curious little Conservative Party will be spending a six-figure sum - 100,000 lats.
Second, there is a prevailing mood of anticlimax in Latvia. Accession to the European Union and NATO has been achieved, but the relief and happiness of joining Europe has been rapidly replaced by grumbling about rising prices: gasoline (only partly down to EU accession), cigarettes, food and so on. The press, previously so very pro-Europe, has gleefully published stories of EU-sleaze and corruption (of which there is certainly no shortage).
There is also an increasingly frivolous attitude to the European Parliament. This is disingenuous, because the European Parliament has shared responsibility with the Council of Ministers for adopting about half of all new domestic legislation in Latvia and the other 24 EU states (most significantly in the single market and environmental policy spheres). While it is ridiculous to imagine that the nine Latvian representatives can have a great impact on policy-making in a 732-seat legislature, the increasing legislative importance of the European Parliament demands that the elections be taken seriously.
Despite the lack of financing and public interest, the election will still be eagerly contested by almost 300 candidates from 16 parties. Moreover, some of the biggest names in Latvian politics are contesting the election, including two former prime ministers, the current foreign minister, as well as a number of serving MPs and former ministers. A seat in the Europarliament is enticing to national politicians jaded by alienation from the electorate, pressure from sponsors and constant attacks from the press. Brussels is a long way away from Latvia. MEPs can lead lives of comparative wealth, following undemanding schedules, fiddling expenses and, best of all, without demanding oligarchs pestering them for favors. Moreover, with only 9 MEPs, all those elected will be sure to maintain a high profile in Latvia, making it possible for them to spring back into Latvian politics after their 5-year sabbatical in Brussels (and Strasbourg).
The cheaper campaigning in this election also gives fringe parties the opportunity to make a name for themselves. Hence the emergence of the Conservative Party, largely bankrolled by the worst-dressed businessman in Latvia - Valerijs Belokons (a portly gentleman clad in denim and leather, looking more like a dodgy taxi driver than a millionaire). His unintelligible Latvian led to the recruitment of the unknown Arnolds Babris, a confused looking man who hardly appears to be "Latvia's Putin," as the party's in-house newspaper calls him. (Then again, Belokons is hardly Winston Churchill, as the paper also claims). The party unrealistically claims that it will use its influence in the European Parliament to peg the lat-euro exchange rate at 2:1 and bring down gasoline prices. Hmm. Despite the money, and the populism, opinion polls have them garnering only 2 percent of voters.
Nevertheless, we should be thankful for the Conservatives. At least they have added some much needed color to an otherwise dreary election. But perhaps this is a sign of Europeanization in Latvia - after all, Europeans in the western half of the continent don't take European elections any more seriously. o
Daunis Auers is a EuroFaculty political science lecturer at the University of Latvia.